Big Year for Birding at Dunes Learning Center

The male Northern Pintail is easy to identify by his striking markings and long tail

The male Northern Pintail is easy to identify by his striking markings and long tail

Following a “family” holiday dinner last year, a group of Dunes Learning Center naturalists and outreach educators went on an amazing birding adventure—with Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Watching “The Big Year” inspired a friendly rivalry of their own.  

Based on prize-winning journalist Mark Obmascik’s book about a marathon, 365-day ornithology competition, the film portrays a grueling year of birding. “The winner sets a new record with 755 sightings,” naturalist Maricela Aviles explains. “We decided to compete in our own Indiana Big Year.”

Avid birder and Dunes Learning Center outreach educator, Matthew Beatty, picked up the gauntlet. According to Matt, more than 330 species live or migrate through Indiana each year—with at least 250 of those found in the dunes.

“They are drawn to the lakeshore’s diverse natural landscape of dunes, woodlands, wetlands and prairie,” he adds. “Lake Michigan’s north-south orientation provides a flight route for migrating species that makes our area  an important feeding and resting place for birds.”

In honor of Indiana’s 200th anniversary (as well as the 100th anniversary of the Indiana State Parks and National Park Service), Indiana Audubon has sponsored the Indiana Bicentennial Birding Big Year (IBBBY). IBBBY challenges birders to, “seek out a minimum of 100 species of birds in Indiana during the contest period.” Those logging 200 species of birds will be eligible for prizes, not to mention bragging rights.

“Matt challenged us to compete with him,” senior naturalist Anthony Escobedo says. “Since then Matt and Mari have taken us under their wing, and we all took off from there.

In a little less than four months, eBird reports that Beatty has logged 177 species while Aviles has 145, Escobedo 125 and senior naturalist Jaime Golba 126. They all currently rank in the top 100 of Indiana birders.

“I first got into birding when I traveled to Ecuador and Costa Rica,” Golba explains. “A lot of the people I met or spent time with really enjoyed birding. I went along to see what the fuss was about and saw a ton of beautiful birds. However, I really got into birding because of Matt and Mari. Their passion inspired me, and I wanted to join them in doing a Big Year.”

Memorable sightings from this winter include canvasback ducks and a lone northern pintail at the Port of Indiana.

“It was a cold day in January, and we were trying to beat cabin fever by doing a little bird watching,” Escobedo recalls. “Most of the lake was locked up with ice except a small portion of open water. Within the mass of hundreds of other waterfowl, there was a lone drake pintail.”

A snowy owl (they camouflage well in the snow and ice on lakefront break walls) and northern shrike (a fascinating bird that impales their meal on a locust or other type of spike) are two species high on everyone’s list to see before the year ends.

A predatory songbird, the Northern Shrike feeds on small birds, mammals, and insects, sometimes impaling them on spines or barbed wire fences.

A predatory songbird, the Northern Shrike feeds on small birds, mammals, and insects, sometimes impaling them on spines or barbed wire fences.

Just as it’s portrayed in the movie, birding by ear—or identifying species of birds by sound—is an important skill that can be honed over time.  “I like to have my binoculars in hand and walk slowly, listening carefully to identify birds as I go,” Beatty says. “It doesn’t take long before you recognize all the familiar birds of an area. In the beginning, you might want a field guide to identify the birds you see, but birding has a fairly quick learning curve. My favorite part is that there are birds everywhere. It’s the type of hobby that affects your whole life even when you’re not birding. You can’t help but notice birds.”

Beatty will lead three field trips during the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May. Learn more and sign up at www.indunesbirdingfestival.com or attend Dunes Learning Center’s Get Outdoors Day open house on June 11, where a bird hike will almost certainly be on the schedule.

The Indiana Bicentennial Birding Big Year January 1 and continues through December 11 (Indiana's birthday).  All participants must submit their bird lists no later than December 16 to be eligible. Learn more www.indianaaudubon.org.